WASHINGTON – The Mid-Atlantic region battled a heavy, snow-laden nor’easter Saturday that created near-blizzard conditions, with blowing snow and poor visibility, and forced people to take shelter from Virginia to New England.
At 5 p.m. Washington, D.C., officially met the National Weather Service criteria for a blizzard: three hours with winds over 35 mph, visibility of 1/4 mile or less and snow and blowing snow. The official weather station at Reagan National Airport reported heavy snow, wind gusts up to 37 mph and visibility of 0.06 miles.
All along the East Coast, authorities pleaded with people to stay off the roads and warned of worsening conditions on Saturday, declaring travel bans in some states and shutting down transit service in others.
In Washington, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) said the storm remained dangerous.”There are too many people in the streets, both driving and walking,” Bowser said at a morning news conference. “Please stay home.”
Snow totals of 16 to 30 inches were expected in the Washington area as it continued to fall with winds increasing through Saturday afternoon. By mid-day totals had reached the 14 to 20-inch range in the capital area, with some areas north and west of the city seeing more than 20 inches.
Along the coast, where the low-pressure system fueling the snowstorm was churning, hurricane-force wind gusts were reported, and the forecast at sea was for towering waves as tall as a three-story buildings.
“As we await the latest model data to get a better idea on how much snow is left . . . we’re on the lookout for official blizzard conditions,” Dan Stillman of The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang reported.
A blizzard requires “snow and/or blowing snow reducing visibility to one-fourthmile or less for three hours or longer and sustained winds of 35 mph or greater or frequent gusts to 35 mph or greater,” according to the National Weather Service, he wrote.
More than 8,700 flights scheduled for the weekend had been canceled by midday Saturday, according to FlightAware.com, which tracks cancellations and delays. In the Washington area, no flights were departing from the region’s three major airports, officials said.
Late Saturday morning, the National Weather Service released updated forecasts predicting up to 30 inches of snow in parts of New York and New Jersey. By Saturday morning, six inches of snow had fallen in Central Park, while double that amount was reported in parts of Nassau County on Long Island, the Weather Service said. Parts of New Jersey also had up to 12 inches of snow.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a travel ban that will go into effect at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday for the downstate part of New York.
In addition to the travel ban, Cuomo said that above-ground subway service would be halted in New York at 4 p.m., while the city’s buses stopped running at noon.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced that any non-emergency travel was being banned in the city at 2:30 p.m. The city’s police department said that anyone violating the ban would be arrested.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who returned to the state from the presidential campaign trail Friday, declared a state of emergency in response to the storm.
“I think today and tonight, folks should expect that this is as an inside day for them,” he told NBC News on Saturday.
There was no travel ban in New Jersey, but emergency officials asked drivers to stay home unless necessary. Christie’s office also announced a 35 mph speed limit on the New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway for people who did have to head out.
New Jersey Transit had shut down all trains, buses and light rail service Saturday due to the storm.
Transit was also severely limited in the Philadelphia area. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which operates trains and buses around Philadelphia, halted almost all service Saturday due to the storm.
In Delaware, Gov. Jack Markell (D) on Saturday said he was banning most drivers in two of the state’s three counties, a restriction his office said would remain in place indefinitely.
Some power outages were reported in Virginia and Maryland, especially in Annapolis, Rockville and Silver Spring, and on the Eastern Shore.
Snowplows were working to keep major roadways clear, though the Capital Beltway early Saturday was clogged with disabled cars at the U.S. 50 interchange.
Transportation officials had urged people to avoid driving, and most seemed to have heeded the warnings. But an SUV caught fire in Silver Spring as the driver was struggling to maneuver up a hill, authorities said. The driver wasn’t injured.
By 7:30 a.m., there were 14 inches of snow at Reagan National Airport, 16 inches reported in Springfield, Va., and 18 inches in Damascus, Md. Germantown had 16 inches, Bethesda 16 inches and Washington’s Petworth neighborhood 14.5 inches.
By noon, it appeared that Gaithersburg, Sterling, Leesburg and Frederick were getting the worst, as they were buried in two, possibly three, feet of snow.
The National Weather Service forecast map was red with blizzard alerts from the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Chesapeake Bay.
Wind restrictions were in place on the Bay Bridge, as gusts over 40 mph tore at flags, and downed wires blocked some streets.
There were two snow-shoveling fatalities. Prince William County officials said a man died of a heart attack while shoveling snow in front of his Dale City home. And Prince George’s County authorities said a 60-year-old man died shoveling snow outside his home in Fort Washington.
Police in Fairfax County said a huge Saint Bernard dog had to be rescued Friday night after falling into a frozen pond.
The 130-pound dog, Milo, was with his family in Fairfax Station, watching them tubing down the hill toward Woodglen Lake when he stepped onto the frozen water and fell through, Fairfax officials said Saturday.
About 30 minutes later, two county firefighters waded into the water wearing heavy ice suits and helped pull the large dog to freedom, but only after falling back into the water a second time under Milo’s weight.
“It was difficult getting that big dog up on the ice,” said fire department Capt. Carlton G. Burkhammer, who supervised the rescue. “If you’re in the water, in an ice suit, and you’re trying to lift something that’s 130 pounds above your head off the ice. That short amount of time in the water, our guys were exhausted.”
Burkhammer urged people to stay away from icy ponds, saying that the risk is too great for them and for rescue workers who have to go in and save them.
“I have been to that exact location three times for ice rescues, dogs in the water, people,” he said. “People in the water, including firefighters, you can’t last that long in these temperatures.”
Meanwhile, District police had to search for a 9-year-old boy who went missing Friday afternoon in Northeast Washington. Police said Di’Marco Dempsy went missing about 4 p.m. Friday from his home in the 4900 block of 12th Street NE.
Saturday morning, police reported that Di’Marco was found safe and unharmed.
In Maryland’s Montgomery County, the roof of an apartment complex’s utility building partially collapsed under heavy snow. Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire Department, said no injuries were reported and no one was trapped.
But he said the collapse knocked out power and other utilities to the apartment building in the 700 block of Quince Orchard Boulevard in Gaithersburg.
Piringer said firefighters working with the Life Safety Task Force were evacuating the complex, which has 250 units, because residents were without heat and utilities.
Around mid-morning, there seemed to be a lull in the storm in some places, said the Weather Gang’s Angela Fritz.
“They’re in what we call a dry slot,” she said. “That’s pretty typical in nor’easters. Big nor’easters tend to have an area of dry air that pulls in from the south, which stops the snow for a period of time.”
“Then it’ll start up again,” she said.
According to the National Weather Service, the record for the biggest two-day snowstorm in Washington was set Jan. 27-28, 1922, when 26 inches fell, collapsing the roof of the Knickerbocker Theatre in Adams Morgan, killing more than 100 people.
The current storm grew in power just after midnight Friday. By 2 a.m. Saturday, snow was falling so fast that the National Weather Service issued a special statement that said the pace of the snowfall, as well as heavy wind gusts, were creating near whiteout conditions.
“Expect snowfall rates of up to 2 inches per hour within this band,” the statement said.
People had already taken to social media at that hour to report snowfall totals between 9 and 11 inches.
The region shut down Friday as the winter storm of potentially history-making magnitude swept in with the prospect of lasting 36 hours and leaving more than two feet of snow in some places. Cleanup from the storm is expected to take days.
The snow’s arrival found Washington and its suburbs as prepared as they could be after days of warnings that this was a massive storm. Despite the hyperbole used before for many storms, this one genuinely looked as if it would be the storm of the young century for the region – and perhaps one that would be remembered for generations.
By midnight, 5 to 8 inches had already fallen, except in the area of Fredericksburg to southern Maryland, which had totals from 8 to 10 inches. That was on track with the latest forecast from the Weather Gang, which called for a total of 16 to 30 inches.
Hundreds of plows and salt trucks took to the major roads in Maryland and Virginia even before the snowfall began. But with the snow expected to keep falling as fast as 3 inches an hour, it seemed a matter of time before even those big arteries would be shut down.
With temperatures just below freezing, the snow was heavy with moisture, and the forecast of gale-force winds posed a threat to trees and power lines, raising fears that snowbound residents would be left in the dark and without heat.
Pepco, which provides power to the District and much of the Maryland suburbs, warned customers that they may face multi-day outages. Dominion Virginia Power, which serves Northern Virginia, had similar fears.
“We began advising our customers earlier this week to prepare for a multi-day outage event. It’s always best to prepare for the worst,” said Dominion spokesman David Botkins. “With that said, we will be swarming the affected areas with crews to get the lights and heat back on as quickly and safely as possible.”
As of dawn Saturday, however, power remained on for most customers in the Washington area.
From the outset, the snow readily took hold on pavement and parked cars that had been in near or below freezing temperatures all week.
Government officials and police agencies had warned residents to gather supplies and stay off the roads.
By 5 p.m. Friday, conditions began to deteriorate rapidly, and Bowser urged stragglers to get off the streets. She said the District National Guard had reported for duty and would be deployed to transport personnel around the city as needed.
“We have a forecast that we haven’t had in 90 years,” Bowser said. “It has life-and-death implications, and all the residents of the District of Columbia should treat it that way.”
Virtually all institutions and attractions in and around the capital region – including the Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo – said they would be closed through the weekend. Metro said it did not plan to resume bus and rail service until Monday.
Though the region’s three major airports said they would remain open, airlines already had canceled hundreds of flights in and out of them. Amtrak said it hoped to operate on a reduced schedule along the Northeast Corridor line but encouraged would-be passengers to check before heading to the train station.
District officials said they were well staffed with emergency personnel but cautioned that responses might be delayed.
City officials warned residents that the city will be dealing with cleanup throughout the coming week and said that residents should not expect to see snowplows before Sunday.
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) echoed that call for patience, saying it would take time for crews to clear the snow.
“We’re not magicians,” he said. “We can’t make it disappear.”